Enough has been written about the despondency that oozes out of every frame of Pyaasa (1957). The story of the poet, Vijay, played and directed by Guru Dutt, has induced heart-wrenching gasps, empathy, tears, bafflement and lengthy collapses into the sad abyss. His true struggle, however, is his inability to embrace the societal shift toward consumer materialism, towards an obsession with owning things and attaching all-encompassing importance to money, to quench desires by accumulating objects that almost always have a diminishing marginal utility, and to eschew explorations of the spiritual world; a world where Vijay found solace — a world of poetry, kindness, and love.
In the present century, consumer materialism is rife. It essentially involves placing the accumulation of material objects at the heart of every endeavour, the derivation of happiness from the possession of material objects, and the innate belief that a sustained stream of acquisition is necessary for happiness in life. Vijay stood in stark contrast to all these beliefs. He lived a frugal life, often starving himself to sleep. He could not find a permanent place for himself in any job and he had no savings for a rainy day (although his life was an elongated period of monsoon). All he cared about was his poetry and his verses, driven by a desire to ignite flames in the hearts of his readers and audience. He did not find adulation, nor was he extolled. His poetry was dismissed by publishing houses, sending him into a downward spiral of self-consuming sadness. He haunted the bleak lanes of prostitution, finding comfort and companionship in Gulab, a sex worker played by Waheeda Rahman.
The squalor of the lanes mirrored his despondency. He was relegated to the bottom rung of the social strata because he did not have possessions, wealth, or economic independence, and he did not fall into the target market for the sale of consumer products. He even gave his sole blazer to a poorer man who was shivering in the cold (which is a major turning point in the narrative), establishing his lack of attachment to material possessions.
His past lover, played by Mala Sinha, chose a life of opulence over companionship with Vijay, which is telling of the truth in the postmodern adage that love alone cannot sustain a relationship. It has to be adorned with material gifts and possessions, the objects that fill the hollow created through a consumerist depiction of relationships by firms and advertisements, selling a socio-economic relevance matrix fuelled by possessions and providing an economic buttress to the meaning of love. There is nothing called love; there is only proof of love. The embracement of a sheltered, monetarily sustainable life by his lover was a major turning point in Vijay’s life and vision. His disillusionment with a society that was standing on the shoulders of consumerism and the accumulation of capital intensified.
He did finally receive the recognition that he was so painfully seeking, but only posthumously (based on a mistaken identity that he was dead). Suddenly, he was being celebrated and his verses were being sung at social gatherings. His brothers, who had disowned him after the death of their mother, came sweeping in like vultures to claim ownership of his printed verses. A lot of people claimed to be acquainted with him to gain some social credibility in conversations. In social gatherings, his craft commanded a healthy price, and his poetry was used as social fuel. His published poems were being subjected to a price war, and there were multiple fracases over the ownership of the original manuscripts. Vijay had become a commodity that was being sold in the market, the very thing he detested.
The movie has a fitting end where Vijay refuses to identify himself as the author of the celebrated verses because the verses that he had written from the depths of his despair and poured his blood, sweat, urine, and suffering into were being commodified and passed around as objects of possession. They did not light fires in the hearts of the readers; instead, they got sucked into the sink of consumer materialism. They became a yardstick of yet another social comparison matrix – pushed down the throats of consumers who wished to derive happiness from the possession of a socially approved cerebral phallus.
The constant need to accumulate capital and unique products and use these possessions as an indicator of social class is an economic reality that reeks of privilege and keeps socio-economic conversations limited to only the opulent section of society. Consumer materialism is also used as a measure of success. The quantity and market value of the consumer goods possessed reflect the social standing of the collector. The happiness derived from such possessions is a social construct created by exploitative firms that sell these products and advertise them as the genesis of life’s meaning. They want people to fill their homes and time with the pursuit of meaningless objects whose relevance withers away with time so that they can be exploited further, kept under the iron hand of authoritarianism, and wreck all attempts to break out of this self-destructive cycle.
Poetry, beauty, love, metered verses, kindness and art fail to be truly commodified by the corporate giants. Hence, they are scared of people who shun consumerism and embrace the quest for cerebral stimulation and artistic explorations.
Consumer materialism is a hollow reflection of what life entails. Whether it was Leo Tolstoy in ‘How Much Land Does a Man Require?’ or Sahir Ludhianvi’s lines in the movie, ‘Yeh daulat ke bhookhey rawajon ki duniya, yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hain’, poetry and art, in general, have always asked us to step out of the hustle of trying to achieve everything at once, stop filling our lives with hollow artefacts, and look at the roses, preferably while having a maalish – a tel maalish!
Tathagata Bhowmik is an independent singer songwriter.